Category Archives: canadian politics

Broken Government: A Case Study in Penny Wise but Pound Foolish Management

Often I write about the opportunities of government 2.0, but it is important for readers to be reminded of just how challenging the world of government 1.0 can be, and how far away any uplifting future can feel.

I’ve stumbled upon a horrifically wonderful example of how tax payers are about to spend an absolutely ridiculous amount of money so that a ton of paper can be pushed around Ottawa to little or no effect. Ironically, it will all in the name of savings and efficiency.

And, while you’ll never see this reported in a newspaper it’s a perfect case study of the type of small decision that renders (in this case the Canadian) government both less effective and more inefficient. Governments: take note.

First, the context. Treasury Board (the entity that oversees how money is spent across the Canadian government) recently put out a simple directive. It stipulates all travel costs exceeding $25,000 must get Ministerial approval and costs from $5000-$25,000 must get Deputy Head approval.

Here are the relevant bits of texts since no sane human should read the entire memo (infer what you wish about me from that):

2.5.1 Ministerial approval is required when total departmental costs associated with the event exceed $25,000.

and

2.5.5 Deputy head approval of an event is required when the event has the following characteristics:

Total departmental costs associated with the event exceed $5,000 but are less than $25,000; or

Total hospitality costs associated with the event exceed $1,500 but are less than $5,000; and

None of the elements listed in 2.5.2 a. to g. are present for which delegated authority has not been provided.

This sounds all very prudent-like. Cut down on expenses! Make everyone justify travel! Right? Except the memo suggests (and, I’m told is being interpreted) as meaning that it should be applied to any event – including an external conference, but even internal planning meetings.

To put this in further context for those who work in the private sector: if you worked for a large publicly traded company – say one with over 5,000, 10,000 or even more employees – the Minister is basically the equivalent of the Chairman of the Board. And the Deputy head? They are like the CEO.

Imagine creating a rule at such a company like Ford, that required an imaginary “safety engineering team” to get the chairman of the company to sign off on their travel expenses – months in advance – if, say, 10 of them needed to collectively spend $25,000 to meet in person or attend an important safety conference. It gets worse. If the team were smaller, say 3-5 people and they could keep the cost to $5000 they would still need approval from the CEO. In such a world it would be hard to imagine new products being created, new creative cost saving ideas getting hammered out. In fact, it would be hard for almost any distributed team to meet without creating a ton of paperwork. Over time, customers would begin to notice as work slowly ground to a halt.

This is why this isn’t making government more efficient. It is going to make it crazier.

It’s also going to make it much, much, more ineffective and inefficient.

For example, this new policy may cause a large number of employees to determine that getting approval for travel is too difficult and they’ll simply give up. Mission accomplished! Money saved! And yes, some of this travel was probably not essential. But much, and likely a significant amount was. Are we better governed? Are we safer? Is our government smarter, in a country where say inspectors, auditors, policy experts and other important decision makers (especially those in the regions) are no longer learning at conferences, participating in key processes or attending meetings about important projects because the travel was too difficult to get approval for? Likely not.

But there is a darker conclusion to draw as well.  There is probably a significant amount of travel that remains absolutely critical. So now we are going to have public servants writing thousands of briefing notes every year seeking to get approval by directors, and then revising them again for approval by director generals (DGs), and again for the Assistant Deputy Ministers (ADMs), and again for the Deputy Minister (DMs) and again, possibly, for Ministerial approval.

That is a truly fantastic waste of the precious time of a lot of very, very senior people. To say nothing of the public servants writing, passing around, revising and generally pushing all these memos.

I’ll go further. I have every confidence that for every one dollar in travel this policy managed to deter from being requested, $500 dollars in the time of Directors, DGs, ADMs, DMs and other senior staff will have been wasted.  Given Canada is a place where the population – and thus a number of public servants – are thinly spread across an over 4000 kilometer wide stretch I suspect there is a fair bit of travel that needs to take place. Using Access to Information Requests you might even be able to ball park how much time was wasted on these requests/memos.

Worse, I’m not even counting the opportunity cost. Rather than tackling the critical problems facing our country, the senior people will be swatting away TPS reports travel budget requests. The only companies I know that run themselves this way are those that have filed for bankruptcy and essentially are not spending any money as they wait to be restructured or sold. They aren’t companies that are trying to solve any new problems, and are certainly not those trying to find creative or effective ways to save money.

In the end, this tells us a lot of about the limits of hierarchical systems. Edicts are a blunt tool – they seldom (if ever) solve the root of a problem and more often simply cause new, bigger problems since the underlying issues remain unresolved. There are also some wonderful analogies to wikileaks and denial of service attacks that I’ll save that for tomorrow.

 

 

Why Banning Anonymous Comments is Bad for Postmedia and Bad for Society

Last night I discovered that my local newspaper – the Vancouver Sun – was going to require users log in with Facebook to comment. It turns out that this will be true of all Postmedia newspapers.

I’m stunned that a newspaper ownership would make such a move. Even more so that editors and journalists would support it. We should all be disappointed when the fourth estate is unable to recognize it is dis-empowering those who are most marginalized. Especially when there are better alternatives at ones disposal. (For those interested in this I also recommend reading Mathew Ingram’s post, Anonymity Has Value, In Comments and Elsewhere from over a year ago.)

So what’s wrong with forcing users to sign in via Facebook to comment?

First, you have to be pretty privileged to believe that forcing people to use their real names will improve comments. Yes, there are a lot of people who use anonymity to troll or say stupid things, but there are also many people who – for very legitimate reasons – don’t want to use their real name.

What supporters of banning anonymity are saying is not just that they oppose trolls (I do too!) but that, for the sake of “accountability” we must also know the name of recovering sexual abuse victim who wants to share their personal perspective on a story in the comments. Or that we (and thus also their boss) should get to know the name of an employee who wants to share information about illegal or unethical practices they have seen at their work in a comment. It also means that a comment you make, ten years hence, can be saved on a newspapers website, traced back to your Facebook account and so used by a prospective employer to decide if you should get a job.

What ending anonymity is really about is power. Now, those who can comment will (even more so) be disproportionately those who have the income and social security to know they can voice their concern in public, safely. So I’m confident that this move will reduce trolls – but it will also snuff out the voices of those who are most marginalized. And journalists clearly understand the power dynamics of our society and the important role anonymity plays in balancing them  this is why they use anonymous sources to get scoops and dig up stories. So how newspapers as an institution, and journalists as a profession see narrowing the opportunity for those most marginalized to challenge power and authority in the comments section as being consistent with their mission, I cannot explain.

There are, of course, far better ways of handling comments. The CBC does a quite decent job of letting people vote up and down comments – this means I rarely see the worst trolls and many thoughtful comments rise to the top. The Globe does an adequate job at this as well. Mechanisms such as these are far less draconian the “outlawing” anonymity and preserve room for those most impacted or marginalized.

But let me go further. Journalists and editors often complain about the comments section as being wild. Well how often to they take even the tiniest bit of energy to engage their commentators? There are plenty of sites that allow anonymous comments with fantastic results – see flickr or reddit – but this is because those sites invested in creating norms and engaging their users. When has a journalist or commentator in this country ever decided to invest themselves in engaging their readers and commenters on a regular and ongoing basis in the comments section? While I’m sure there are important exceptions, by and large the answer is almost never. Indeed, I’m always stunned by the number of journalists and commentators I talk to who more or less hold much of their audience in contempt – seeing them as wild. No wonder the comment section has run amok – we can pretend otherwise but the commenters know you don’t respect them. If newspapers are not happy with their comment sections, they really have no one to blame but themselves. This is after all, the community they created, the norms they fostered, the result of investments that they made. Shluffing it all off to Facebook both runs counter to their mission but is also a shirking of responsibility (and business opportunity) of the highest order.

Of course, handing the problem to Facebook won’t solve it either. It was suggested, at last count, that over 80 million facebook accounts are fake. Expect that number to go up. But of course, the people who will be most happy to create that fake account are going to be the trolls who want to use it regularly, not the lone commentator who has an important perspective about a story but doesn’t want to tell the world who they are out of fear of social stigma or worse.

What’s worse, Postmedia has now essentially farmed its privacy policy out to Facebook. Presently that means that, in theory, you can’t be anonymous. But what will it mean in the future? Postmedia can’t tell you. They can’t even influence it.

For an organization managing discussions as sensitive as newspapers do – that is a pretty shocking stance to take. Who knows what future decisions about privacy Facebook is going to make. But here’s what I do know, I trusted the National Post a hell of a lot more to manage my comments and identity than I do Facebook because their missions are totally different. In the end, this could be bad not just for comments, but for Postmedia. Many people are already pretty uncomfortable with Facebook’s policies. I expect more will become so. Even if they don’t comment, I suspect readers will be drawn to sites that engage them more effectively – a newspapers that has outsourced its engagement to Facebook will probably lose out.

I get that Postmedia believes its job of managing comments will become easier because it has outsourced identity management to Facebook – but it has come at a real cost, one that I think is unacceptable for a newspaper. In the end, I think the quality of engagement and of discussion at Postmedia will suffer. That will be bad for it, but it will also be bad for society in general.

And that is sad news for all of us.

Added @ 9:27am PST. Note: Some Postmedia journalists want to make clear that this decision was a corporate one, not theirs.

Lying with Maps: How Enbridge is Misleading the Public in its Ads

The Ottawa Citizen has a great story today about an advert by Enbridge (the company proposing to build a oil pipeline across British Columbia) that includes a “broadly representational” map that shows prospective supertankers steaming up an unobstructed Douglas Channel channel on their way to and from Kitimat – the proposed terminus of the pipeline.

Of course there is a small problem with this map. The route to Kitimat by sea looks nothing like this.

Take a look at the Google Map view of the same area (I’ve pasted a screen shot below – and rotated the map so you are looking at it from the same “standing” location). Notice something missing from Enbridge’s maps?

Kitimate-Google2

According to the Ottawa Citizens story an Enbridge spokesperson said their illustration was only meant to be “broadly representational.” Of course, all maps are “representational,” that is what a map is, a representation of reality that purposefully simplifies that reality so as to aid the reader draw conclusions (like how to get from A to B). Of course such a representation can also be used to mislead the reader into drawing the wrong conclusion. In this case, removing 1000 square kilometers that create a complicated body of water to instead show that oil tankers can steam relatively unimpeded up Douglas Channel from the ocean.

The folks over at Leadnow.ca have remade the Enbridge map as it should be:

EnbridgeV2

Rubbing out some – quite large – islands that make this passage much more complicated of course fits Enbridge’s narrative. The problem is, at this point, given how much the company is suffering from the perception that it is not being fully upfront about its past record and the level of risk to the public, presenting a rosy eyed view of the world is likely to diminish the public’s confidence in Enbridge, not increase their confidence in the project.

There is another lesson. This is great example of how facts, data and visualization matter. They do. A lot. And we are, almost every day, being lied to through visual representations from sources we are told to trust. While I know that no one thinks of maps as open or public data in many ways they are. And this is a powerful example of how, when data is open and available, it can enable people to challenge the narratives being presented to them, even when those offering them up are powerful companies backed by a national government.

If you are going to create a representation of something you’d better think through what you are trying to present, and how others are going to see it. In Enbridge’s case this was either an effort at guile gone horribly wrong or a communications strategy hopelessly unaware of the context in which it is operating. Whoever you are, and whatever you are visualization – don’t be like Enbridge – think through your data visualization before you unleash it into the wild.

What do I think of the Canadian Senate?

Read Jennifer Ditchburn in the Globe and Mail – Senate stubborn on making information about chamber more accessible.

It is laughable about how hard the Canadian Senate makes it to access information about it. The lower house – which has made good progress in the last few years on this front – shares tons of information online. But the Senate? Attendance records, voting records and well, pretty much any record, is nigh high impossible to get online. Indeed, as Jennifer points out, for many requests you have to make an appointment and go in, in person, in Ottawa(!!!) to get them.

What year is it? 1823? It’s not like we haven’t had the mail, the telephone, the fax machine, and of course, the internet come along to make accessing all this information a little easier. I love that if you want to get certain documents about the operation of the senate you have to go to Ottawa.

Given the Senate is not even elected in Canada and has, shall we say, a poor reputation for accountability and accessibility, you’d think this would be a priority. Sadly, it is not. Having spoken with some of the relevant parties I can say, Senators are not interested in letting you see or know anything.

I understand the desire of the senate to be above the political fray, to not be bent by the fickle swings in electoral politics, to be a true house of “second sober thought.” And yet I see no reason why it can’t still be all that, while still making all the information that it must make public about itself, available online in a machine readable format. It is hard to see how voting records or attendance records will sway how the Senate operates, other than maybe prompt some Senators to show up for work more often.

But let’s not hold our breath for change. Consider my favourite part of the article:

“A spokeswoman for government Senate leader Marjory LeBreton said she was unavailable and her office had no comment. Ms. LeBreton has asked a Senate committee to review the rules around Senate attendance, but it’s unclear if the review includes the accessibility of the register.”

No comment? For a story on the Senate’s lack of accessibility? Oh vey! File it under: #youredoingitwrong

 

 

Reviewing Access to Information Legislation

Just got informed – via the CivicAccess mailing list – that Canada’s Access to Information Commissioner is planning to review Canada’s Access to Information legislation (full story here at the Vancouver Sun).

This is great news. Canada has long trumpeted its Access to Information Legislation as world leading. This was true… in 1985. It was plausible in 1995. Today, it is anything but true. The process is slow, frequently requests are denied and requests had to be paid for by check. Indeed, if a document you are looking for might be held by the US government, it is well known among Canadian journalists that you are better to ask the Americans for it. Even though you are a foreign they are both much faster and much more likely, to provide it. It is, frankly, embarrassing.

So we are no longer global leaders. Which is why I think it is great the commissioner might look abroad for best practices. The article suggests she will look at Britain, the United States, Mexico, New Zealand and Australia.

These are all fine choices. But if I had my pick, I’d add Brazil to the mix. It’s new transparency law is exceedingly interesting and aggressive in its approach. Greg Michener – a Canadian who lives in Brazil – covered the new law in Brazil’s Open Government Shock Therapy for TechPresident (where I’m an editor). The disclosure requirements in Brazil set a bar that, in some ways, is much higher than in Canada.

There are also some Eastern European countries that have had very progressive transparency laws – in reaction to both previously authoritarian regimes and to corruption problems – that make them worth examining. In other words, I’d love to see a mix that included more countries that have altered their laws more recently. This is probably where we are going to find some of the newer, more exciting innovations.

Regardless of what countries are looked at though – I’m glad the commissioner is doing this and wish her good luck.

Open Postal Codes: A Public Response to Canada Post on how they undermine the public good

Earlier this week the Ottawa Citizen ran a story in which I’m quoted about a fight between Treasury Board and Canada Post officials over making postal code data open. Treasury Board officials would love to add it to data.gc.ca while Canada post officials are, to put it mildly, deeply opposed.

This is of course, unsurprising since Canada Post recently launched a frivolous law suit against a software developer who is – quite legally – recreating the postal code data set. For those new to this issue I blogged about this, why postal codes matter and cover the weakness (and incompetence) of Canada Post’s legal case here.

But this new Ottawa Citizen story had me rolling my eyes anew – especially after reading the quotes and text from Canada Post spokesperson. This is in no way an attack on the spokesperson, who I’m sure is a nice person. It is an attack on their employer whose position, sadly, is not just in opposition to the public interest because of the outcome in generates but because of the way it treats citizens. Let me break down Canada Posts platform of ignorance public statement line by line, in order to spell out how they are undermining both the public interest, public debate and accountability.

Keeping the information up-to-date is one of the main reasons why Canada Post needs to charge for it, said Anick Losier, a spokeswoman for the crown corporation, in an interview earlier this year. There are more than 250,000 new addresses and more than a million address changes every year and they need the revenue generated from selling the data to help keep the information up-to-date.

So what is interesting about this is that – as far as I understand – it is not Canada Post that actually generates most of this data. It is local governments that are responsible for creating address data and, ironically, they are required to share it for free with Canada Post. So Canada Post’s data set is itself built on data that it receives for free. It would be interesting for cities to suddenly claim that they needed to engage in “cost-recovery” as well and start charging Canada Post. At some point you recognize that a public asset is a public asset and that it is best leveraged when widely adopted – something Canada Post’s “cost-recovery” prevents. Indeed, what Canada Post is essentially saying is that it is okay for it to leverage the work of other governments for free, but it isn’t okay for the public to leverage its works for free. Ah, the irony.

“We need to ensure accuracy of the data just because if the data’s inaccurate it comes into the system and it adds more costs,” she said.

“We all want to make sure these addresses are maintained.”

So, of course, do I. That said, the statement makes it sound like there is a gap between Canada Post – which is interested in the accuracy of the data – and everyone else – who isn’t. I can tell you, as someone who has engaged with non-profits and companies that make use of public data, no one is more concerned about accuracy of data than those who reuse it. That’s because when you make use of public data and share the results with the public or customers, they blame you, not the government source from which you got the data, for any problems or mistakes. So invariable one thing that happens when you make data open is that you actually have more stakeholders with strong interests in ensuring the data is accurate.

But there is also something subtly misleading about Canada Posts statement. At the moment, the only reason there is inaccurate data out there is because people are trying to find cheaper ways of creating the postal code data set and so are willing to tolerate less accurate data in order to not have to pay Canada Post. If (and that is a big if) Canada Post’s main concern was accuracy, then making the data open would be the best protection as it would eliminate less accurate version of postal code data. Indeed, this suggests a failure of understanding economics. Canada states that other parts of its business become more expensive when postal code data is inaccurate. That would suggest that providing free data might help reduce those costs – incenting people to create inaccurate postal code data by charging for it may be hurting Canada Post more than any else. But we can’t assess that, for reason I outline below. And ultimately, I suspect Canada Post’s main interest in not accuracy – it is cost recovery – but that doesn’t sound nearly as good as talking about accuracy or quality, so they try to shoe horn those ideas into their argument.

She said the data are sold on a “cost-recovery” basis but declined to make available the amount of revenue it brings in or the amount of money it costs the Crown corporation to maintain the data.

This is my favourite part. Basically, a crown corporation, whose assets belong to the public, won’t reveal the cost of a process over which it has a monopoly. Let’s be really clear. This is not like other parts of their business where there are competative risk in releasing information – Canada Post is a monopoly provider. Instead, we are being patronized and essentially asked to buzz off. There is no accountability and there is no reasons why they could give us these numbers. Indeed, the total disdain for the public is so appalling it reminds me of why I opt out of junk mail and moved my bills to email and auto-pay ages ago.

This matters because the “cost-recovery” issue goes to the heart of the debate. As I noted above, Canada Post gets the underlying address data for free. That said, there is no doubt that it then creates some value to the data by adding postal codes. The question is, should that value best be recouped through cost-recovery at this point in the value chain, or at later stages through additional economy activity (and this greater tax revenue). This debate would be easier to have if we knew the scope of the costs. Does creating postal code data cost Canada Post $100,000 a year? A million? 10 million? We don’t know and they won’t tell us. There are real economic benefits to be had in a digital economy where postal code data is open, but Canada Post prevents us from having a meaningful debate since we can’t find out the tradeoffs.

In addition, it also means that we can’t assess if their are disruptive ways in which postal code data could be generated vastly more efficiently. Canada Post has no incentive (quite the opposite actually) to generate this data more efficiently and there for make the “cost-recovery” much, much lower. It may be that creating postal code data really is a $100,000 a year problem, with the right person and software working on it.

So in the end, a government owned Crown Corporation refuses to not only do something that might help spur Canada’s digital economy – make postal code data open – it refuses to even engage in a legitimate public policy debate. For an organization that is fighting to find its way in the 21st century it is a pretty ominous sign.

* As an aside, in the Citizen article it says that I’m an open government activist who is working with the federal government on the website’s development. The first part – on activism – is true. The latter half, that I work on the open government website’s development, is not. The confusion may arise from the fact that I sit on the Treasury Board’s Open Government Advisory Panel, for which I’m not paid, but am asked for feedback, criticism and suggestions – like making postal code data open – about the government’s open government and open data initiatives.

The Transparent Hypocrisy of Ethical Oil – who is really laundering money

The other week the Canadian Minister of the Environment, Peter Kent accused Canadian Charities of “laundering money” because they accept some funds from outside the country. This has all been part of a larger effort – championed by Ethical Oil – to discredit Canada’s environmental organizations.

As an open government and transparency in politics advocate I find the whole conversation deeply interesting. On the one side, environmental groups have to disclose who funds them and where the money comes from. This is what actually allows Ethical Oil to make their complaint in the first place. Ethical Oil however, feels no need to share this information. Apparently what is good for the goose, is not good for the gander.

The media really only touches on this fact occasionally. In the Globe an Mail this hypocrisy was buried in the last few lines of a recent article:

Ethical Oil launched a radio ad Tuesday that will run throughout Ontario flaunting the proposal as a way to lower oil prices and create jobs.

Mr. Ellerton said he couldn’t immediately provide an estimate for how much the group is spending on the campaign. He also refused to reveal who funds the lobby group, other than to say: “Ethical Oil accepts donations from Canadians and Canadian businesses.”

The group has supported the Conservatives move to end foreign funding of environmental groups, including those that oppose the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipeline projects. Mr. Ellerton has campaigned to expose the funding behind those groups but said he could not shed more light on his own organization.

“We have an organizational policy not to disclose who are donors because we’ve faced lawsuits in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” he said, “and we don’t want to expose our donors to that kind of litigation.”

Of course, the the notion of what a “Canadian Business” means is never challenged. It turns out that many of the large “Canadian” players in the oil sands – those with corporate headquarters in Canada – are barely Canadian. Indeed, a recent analysis using Bloomberg data showed that 71 per cent of all tar sands production is owned by non-Canadian shareholders.

Consider the following ownership stakes of “Canadian” businesses:

Petrobank Energy Resources: 94.8% foreign owned

Husky Energy: 90.9% foreign (this one really surprised me!)

MEG Energy: 89.1% foreign

Imperial Oil: 88.9% foreign

Nexen: 69.9% foreign

Canadian Natural Resources Limited: 58.8% foreign

Suncor Energy: 56.8% foreign

Canadian Oil Sands: 56.8% foreign

Cenovus: 54.7% foreign

I think it is great that Ethical Oil wants greater transparency around who is funding who in the Oil Sands debate. But shouldn’t they be held to the same standard so that we can understand who is funding them?

If Ethical Oil and the government want to call it money laundering when a foreign citizen funds a Canadian environmental group, should we also use the term if a foreign (often Chinese or American) entity plows money into Ethical Oil?

The Oil Sands in Alberta is like Language Laws in Quebec… It's a domestic issue

This post isn’t based on a poll I’ve conducted or some rigorous methodology, rather it has evolved out of conversations I’ve had with friends, thought leaders I’ve run into, articles I’ve read and polls I’ve seen in passing.

As most people know the development of the oil sands is a thorny issue in Canada. The federal government is sweeping aside environmental regulations, labeling environmentalist groups terrorists and money launderers and overriding processes developed to enabled people to express their concerns.

What’s the public make of all this?

Polls generally seem to have the country split. Canadians are not opposed to natural resource development (how could we be?) but they are also worried about the environment (I’m not claiming enough to act). In this regard the Nik Nanos poll from March is instructive. Here most Canadians place environmental concerns (4.24 out of 5) ahead of economic prosperity (3.71 out of 5). There are of course polls that say the opposite. The normally reliable Ipsos Reid has a Canadian Chamber of Commerce poll which asks “it is possible to increase oil and gas production while protecting the environment at the same time.” As if Canadians know! I certainly don’t know the answer to that question. What I do know is that I’d like it to be possible to increase oil and gas productions while protecting the environment at the same time. This, I suspect, is what people are really saying: “Yes! I’d like to have my cake and eat it to. Go figure out the details.” This does not mean it is possible. Just desirable.

So on a superficial level, I suspect that most Canadians think the oil sands are dirty. Their are of course the outlining camps: the die hard supporters and die hard opposers, but I’m not talking about them. Most Canadians are, at their core, uncomfortable with the oil sands. They know it is bad for the environments and may be good for the economy. That doesn’t mean they are opposed, it just doesn’t mean they aren’t happy either.

But here’s the rub.

I think most Canadians feel like the oil sands is an Alberta issue. Ultimately, many don’t care if it is dirty, many don’t care if it doesn’t benefit them. So long as the issue is confined within Alberta’s borders and it’s an Alberta problem/opportunity then they are happy to give them a free hand. I’ve been comparing it to French Language laws in Quebec. You’d be hard pressed to find many Canadians who strongly agree with them. They understand them. They get why they matter to Quebec. And frankly, they’ve given up caring. As long as the issue is confined within Quebec it’s “domestic politics” and they accept it now as fact.

Of course, the moment the issue stretches outside of Alberta, the gloves are off. Take the pipeline proposal for example. I suspect that support for the Gateway pipeline, especially after the Keystone pipeline is approved, will likely disintegrate. Barbara Yaffe beat me to the punch with her column “What’s in Pipeline Expansion for BC?” which articulated exactly where I think BC is going. Already opinion polls show opposition to the pipeline is growing. Anyone knows that the moment a tanker strikes ground off the coast of BC you have a $1B problem on your hand. Most BCers are beginning to ask why they should put their tourism and fishing industries at risk and be left footing the bill for environmental damage on oil that Alberta is making money off of? A couple hundred jobs a year in benefits isn’t going to cut it.

What’s worse is that it is almost impossible to imagine that Keystone won’t get approved this time around. As a result, Alberta will have it’s pipeline out and so the major source of concern – a way to get the oil out – will have been satisfied. Building a pipeline through BC is now no longer essential. It is a bonus. It is all about getting a extra $30 premium a barrel and, of course, satisfying all those Chinese investors. BCers will be even more confused about why they have to absorb the environmental risks so that their neighbor can get rich.

This is also why the provincial NDP’s formal opposition to the pipeline is clever. While it cites environmental concerns and does use tough language it does not draw a hard line in the sand. Rather, it concludes “that the risks of this project (the Northern Gateway Pipeline) far outweigh its benefits.” Implicit in this statement is that if the benefits were to increase – if say, Alberta were to pay a percentage of the royalties to BC – then their position could change as well. In other words – you want us to accommodate your language politics in our province? We may so “no” anyway, but if we say yes… it is going to cost you.

All of this is further complicated by the fact that Alberta’s history of playing well with other provinces on issues of national interest is not… spectacular (remember the Alberta firewall?). Alberta has often wanted to go it alone – that is, indeed, part of its brand. I suspect most of the rest of the country has neither the inclination nor the care to stop them, just like they didn’t with Quebec. But that doesn’t mean they are going to get a helping hand either.

 

 

 

My LRC Review of "When the Gods Changed" and other recommended weekend readings

This week, the Literary Review of Canada published my and Taylor Owen’s review of When the Gods Changed: The Death of Liberal Canada by Peter C. Newman. For non-Canadians Peter Newman is pretty much a legend when it comes to covering Canadian history and politics, he was editor of the country’s largest newspaper and main news magazine and has published over 35 books. I also think the review will be of interest to non-Canadians since I think the topic of the decline of Liberal Canada are also true for a number of other countries experiencing more polarized politics.

Some other articles I’ve been digesting that I recommend for some Friday or weekend reading:

Why China’s Political Model Is Superior

This one is a couple of months old, but it doesn’t matter. Fascinating read. For one it shows the type of timelines that the Chinese look at the world with. Hint. It is waaayyyy longer than ours. Take a whiff:

In Athens, ever-increasing popular participation in politics led to rule by demagogy. And in today’s America, money is now the great enabler of demagogy. As the Nobel-winning economist A. Michael Spence has put it, America has gone from “one propertied man, one vote; to one man, one vote; to one person, one vote; trending to one dollar, one vote.” By any measure, the United States is a constitutional republic in name only.

Unattractive Real Estate Agents Achieve Quicker Sales

Before getting serious on you again, here’s a lighter more interesting note. I often comment in talks I give that real estate agents rarely use data to attract clients – mostly just pictures of themselves. Turns out… there might be more data in that then I thought! Apparently less attractive agents sell homes faster and work harder. More attractive agents take longer, but get more money. Food for thought here.

Andrew Coyne: Question isn’t where conservatism is going, but where has it gone

Another oldie but a goody. Liberal Canada may be dead, but it appears that Conservative Canada isn’t in much better shape. I’ve always enjoyed Coyne and feel like he’s been sharper than usual of late (since moving back to the National Post). For Americans, there may be some interesting lessons in here for the Tea Party movement. Canada experienced a much, much lighter form of conservative rebellion with creation of the Reform Party in the late 80s/early 90s which split off from establishment conservatives. Today, that group is now in power (rebranded) but Coyne assesses that much of what they do has been watered down. But not everything… to the next two articles!

Environmental charities ‘laundering’ foreign funds, Kent says

Sadly, Canada’s “Environment” Minister is spending most of his time attacking environmental groups. The charge is that they use US money to engage in advocacy against a pipeline to be built in Canada. Of course “Laundering” is a serious charge (in infers illegal activity) and given how quick the Conservatives have been in suing opponents for libel Kent had better be careful the stakeholders will adopt this tactic. Of course, this is probably why he doesn’t name any groups in particular (clever!). My advice, is that all the groups named by the Senate committee should sue him, then, to avoid the lawsuit he’d have to either a) back down from the claim altogether, or b) be specific about which group he is referring to to have the other suits thrown out. Next headline… to the double standard!

Fraser Institute co-founder confirms ‘years and years’ of U.S. oil billionaires’ funding

Some nifty investigative work here by a local Vancouver reporter finds that while the Canadian government believes it is bad for environmental groups to receive US funds for advocacy, it is apparently, completely okay for Conservative groups to receive sums of up to $1.7M from US oil billionaires. Ethical Oil – another astro-turf pro-pipeline group does something similar. It receives money from Canadian law firms that represent benefiting American and Chinese oil interests. But that money is labelled “Canadian” because it is washed through Canadian law firms. Confused? You should be.

What retail is hired to do: Apple vs. IKEA

I love that Clay Christiansen is on twitter. The Innovator’s Dilemma is a top 5 book of all time for me. Here is a great break down of how IKEA and Apple stores work. Most intriguing is the unique value proposition/framing their stores make to consumers which explains their phenomenal success as why they are often not imitated.

Public Policy: The Big Opportunity For Health Record Data

A few weeks ago Colin Hansen – a politician in the governing party in British Columbia (BC) – penned an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun entitled Unlocking our data to save lives. It’s a paper both the current government and opposition should read, as it is filled with some very promising ideas.

In it, he notes that BC has one of the best collections of health data anywhere in the world and that, data mining these records could yield patterns – like longitudinal adverse affects when drugs are combined or the correlations between diseases – that could save billions as well as improve health care outcomes.

He recommends that the province find ways to share this data with researchers and academics in ways that ensure the privacy of individuals are preserved. While I agree with the idea, one thing we’ve learned in the last 5 years is that, as good as academics are, the wider public is often much better in identifying patterns in large data sets. So I think we should think bolder. Much, much bolder.

Two years ago California based Heritage Provider Network, a company that runs hospitals, launched a $3 Million predictive health contest that will reward the team who, in three years, creates the algorithm that best predicts how many days a patient will spend in a hospital in the next year. Heritage believes that armed with such an algorithm, they can create strategies to reach patients before emergencies occur and thus reduce the number of hospital stays. As they put it: “This will result in increasing the health of patients while decreasing the cost of care.”

Of course, the algorithm that Heritage acquires through this contest will be proprietary. They will own it and I can choose who to share it with. But a similar contest run by BC (or say, the VA in the United States) could create a public asset. Why would we care if others made their healthcare system more efficient, as long as we got to as well. We could create a public good, as opposed to Heritage’s private asset. More importantly, we need not offer a prize of $3 million dollars. Several contests with prizes of $10,000 would likely yield a number of exciting results. Thus for very little money with might help revolutionize BC, and possibly Canada’s and even the world’s healthcare systems. It is an exciting opportunity.

Of course, the big concern in all of this is privacy. The Globe and Mail featured an article in response to Hansen’s oped (shockingly but unsurprisingly, it failed to link back to – why do newspaper behave that way?) that focused heavily on the privacy concerns but was pretty vague about the details. At no point was a specific concern by the privacy commissioner raised or cited. For example, the article could have talked about the real concern in this space, what is called de-anonymization. This is when an analyst can take records – like health records – that have been anonymized to protect individual’s identity and use alternative sources to figure out who’s records belong to who. In the cases where this occurs it is usually only only a handful of people whose records are identified, but even such limited de-anonymization is unacceptable. You can read more on this here.

As far as I can tell, no one has de-anonymized the Heritage Health Prize data. But we can take even more precautions. I recently connected with Rob James – a local epidemiologist who is excited about how opening up anonymized health care records could save lives and money. He shared with me an approach taking by the US census bureau which is even more radical than de-anonymization. As outlined in this (highly technical) research paper by Jennifer C. Huckett and Michael D. Larsen, the approach involves creating a parallel data set that has none of the features of the original but maintains all the relationships between the data points. Since it is the relationships, not the data, that is often important a great deal of research can take place with much lower risks. As Rob points out, there is a reasonably mature academic literature on these types of privacy protecting strategies.

The simple fact is, healthcare spending in Canada is on the rise. In many provinces it will eclipse 50% of all spending in the next few years. This path is unsustainable. Spending in the US is even worse. We need to get smarter and more efficient. Data mining is perhaps the most straightforward and accessible strategy at our disposal.

So the question is this: does BC want to be a leader in healthcare research and outcomes in an area the whole world is going to be interested in? The foundation – creating a high value data set – is already in place. The unknown is if can we foster a policy infrastructure and public mandate that allows us to think and act in big ways. It would be great if government officials, the privacy commissioner and some civil liberties representatives started to dialogue to find some common ground.  The benefits to British Columbians – and potentially to a much wider population – could be enormous, both in money and, more importantly, lives, saved.